“Teams that commit to decisions and standards of performance do not hesitate to hold one another accountable for adhering to those decisions and standards. What is more, they don’t rely on the team leader as the primary source of accountability, they go directly to their peers.” Patrick Lencioni, author of Five Dysfunctions of a team.
Accountability means accepting responsibility for what we say we will do. Strong teams have both mutual and collective accountability. Individuals hold one another accountable for what they say they will do, and also feel collectively responsible for the team’s successes and failures.
Building a culture of mutual and collective accountability in your team can boost motivation, performance and ultimately drive better team results. Here’s you some tips to get started.
Why is accountability at work challenging?
Avoidance of accountability as a real fear and the single most common area of team dysfunction. The reason we avoid it is because it’s hard to do!
“The wuss factor happens when a team member or leader constantly balks when it’s time to call someone out on their behavior or performance.” Patrick Lencioni
5 tips for overcoming the fear of accountability
1. Remember it’s about setting clear goals
In order to keep people accountable they need to know what they're accountable for. If employees do not have clear goals and well defined roles and responsibilities then they have to make assumptions about what to prioritise. Making team goals, roles and responsibilities explicit means the team can share success or failure. Holding people to account can be uncomfortable in a person-to-person way, so remember that you’re not singling out an individual, it’s about helping everyone in the team achieve what you’ve set out to do.
2. Feel safe to speak out
To hold one another accountable, team members need to feel safe to speak out and offer honest feedback. Psychological safety is a state where people feel accepted and understand it’s safe to take risks and be vulnerable.
If people in your team are hesitant to do this, you may need to build psychological safety in your team. Take step back, first build relationships and more open communication in the team, then revisit accountability when the team has build a stronger basis of trust. (If you need help here we have blogs on these areas too!)
If you already have a high degree of psychological safety but people aren't speaking out then it's likely they're getting too comfortable and standards are slipping. Encourage others to give feedback by modelling the desired behaviour.
3. Use peer review and peer feedback
Peer accountability is powerful because no one likes to let a teammate down. Establishing a culture of peer review and feedback where people feel they can call each other out is an effective way to resolve performance issues as they happen. It’s also likely to reduce bureaucracy in your team, as fewer issues will get escalated to management.
The key is to do this often and ideally in the moment. It’s best to hold somebody to account while they still have time to do something about it.
4. Think about how you manage failure
Accountability brings to the surface both the good and the bad, so It’s important to have a plan for managing failure. Punishment is never a good way to deal with mistakes — it’s likely to create fear and stifle innovation and learning.
Treat mistakes and failures as a learning opportunity. If you analyse the cause, you can decide what isn’t working and what you need to do about it.
You might even want to think about making this clear in your team’s culture: some teams have phrases like “safe to fail” in their core values.
5. Test and gather feedback
For many teams jumping straight into a culture of accountability will be quite a leap to what they’re used to. Try it out as a team, start with a meeting and if the team really need easing in assign roles of good cop/bad cop for the meeting. These roles will help the team understand it’s not personal, but they’re playing a part for the good of the team.
After your first meeting try to extend the periods of time that it’s ok to challenge each other from a day to a week to when it becomes the norm. In between sessions gather feedback both publicly and privately on how the team felt. Some team members might enjoy the constructive comments while others might take some time and coaching before they get used to it. Overall trust in the team will grow and as a results outcomes will improve.